I usually have something clever to say," Neil Young told the audience between songs Saturday night at the Wiltern theater. "But not tonight -- we're too close to home."
The occasion was the first L.A. concert in more than 40 years by Buffalo Springfield, the short-lived yet highly influential late-'60s outfit that launched Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay into the country-rock cosmos. And close to home these lifers certainly were: Blazing a trail for future West Coast superstars such as the Eagles and Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield made its name in cozy West Hollywood clubs such as the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go, less than 10 miles from the Wiltern, where the band arrived Saturday after a pair of gigs in Oakland.
The reunion tour stops at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday and Wednesday, then travels to Tennessee for this weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival.
Yet if Saturday's sold-out homecoming had all the makings of a trapped-in-amber nostalgia-thon, Buffalo Springfield could scarcely have seemed less concerned with upholding its legacy. Filled out by bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Joe Vitale (stand-ins for the late Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin, respectively), the band tore through material from its three studio albums -- enduring numbers such as Young's "I Am a Child" and Furay's "Kind Woman" but also lesser-known selections such as Stills' "Everybody's Wrong" -- with the kind of abandon not often seen on the back-from-the-dead circuit.
"Rumors of our breakup have been greatly exaggerated," Young cracked at one point, and his joke got at the appealing no-big-deal-ness of the 100-minute show. When a light box behind Vitale malfunctioned and set off a potentially seizure-inducing strobe effect, nobody even mentioned what might have been a serious threat to this crowd of graying old-timers.
Behind the perceived informality, of course, lay decades of accumulated technique, as you were reminded each time the three singers locked into their signature vocal harmonies. ("Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say It" was especially lovely.) And in "Go and Say Goodbye," Young and Stills traded interlaced guitar licks in an apparently intuitive way that reflected the many years they've spent playing together.
Thankfully, though, the musicians telegraphed zero interest in the rock-canonical nonsense that weighs down so many reunion acts. Indeed, several times at the Wiltern they seemed determined to undermine their collective reputation as jingle-jangle forebears: After Young introduced it as a song he wrote on his bathroom floor one night upon returning home from the Whisky, Buffalo Springfield gave "Mr. Soul" a stomping, fuzz-encrusted reading that was almost comical in its intensity. In its encore, the band remade "For What It's Worth" -- "Our Top 10 hit," Young sniffed -- as a low-slung swamp-soul jam with growling lead vocals from Stills.
"Nice to see you again," Young said after that number, again resisting the urge to say anything clever. Was he overpowered by the significance of the moment? Maybe. More likely, he was getting a job done.